Oscar Race 2001

Russell Crowe in Gladiator

From the "Isn't it ironic?" department: After the 1999 movie year, which was widely considered to be one of film's best in decades, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scienes produced its weakest Best Picture slate in ages, while this year, generally considered to be a nadir for film in general, the Academy has chosen its finest roster of Best Picture candidates since at least 1993. We have two movies that are flat-out great (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Traffic), one that's very, very good (Erin Brockovich), one that should have been crap but turned out surprisingly strong (Gladiator), and even the weakest in the field, the token Miramax entry Chocolat, is terrifically entertaining, and far better than last year's nominees The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, and The Sixth Sense. Who woulda thunk it?

Now, the time has come to predict the Oscar winners. And guess what? We have a legitimately thrilling horserace to look forward to. This year's telecast (scheduled to air on ABC on Sunday, March 25, at 7:30 p.m.) looks to be a battle of the epics, as the sword-fighting behemoth Gladiator, with its 12 nominations, faces off against the Chinese martial-arts extravaganza Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with its 10 nominations, and neither pic is likely to go home with less than three awards. But which will emerge ultimately victorious? Both have serious drawbacks in addition to their many strengths, and it's helpful in prognosticating to look at the recent victors in a few of the numerous pre-Oscar ceremonies, most notably the Hollywood Foreign Press' Golden Globe Awards, which were announced in January; the British Academy Awards, which were given out at the end of February (for the first time in their history, these honors were bestowed prior to the American Oscar ceremony, and could, therefore, indirectly affect our Oscar race); and the Screen Actors' Guild (SAG) Awards, whose recipients have had a marvelous track record when it comes time to win Oscars. (They've been six for six in predicting who would take home the Best Actor trophy at the Academy Awards, but as you'll discover below, their winning streak ends this year.)

Here's hoping that justice will be served, telecast host Steve Martin will be as inspired as I imagine he'll be, and there'll be at least one hilariously inappropriate Debbie Allen dance number to laugh about the next day. The following are my predictions, and not necessarily my choices, for the major categories in this year's Oscar race.

Best Picture: Gladiator. The last time we had a Best Picture race quite this exciting was in 1996, when Braveheart took the gold over several other major possibilities, including Apollo 13, Babe, and Sense & Sensibility. (Only the fifth contender, Il Postino, didn't have a chance.) But by the time Braveheart won a couple of other major awards, like Best Director and Best Cinematography, it was pretty clear what the evening's big winner was going to be. (Right before the telecast's announcement of Best Picture, the film already had four Oscars against the two for Apollo 13 and one each for the other three nominees.) Expect things to be similar this year; we probably won't have a good inkling of the eventual Best Picture winner until results come in on such categories as Cinematography, Film Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, and Original Score, all of which include the match-up of the night: Gladiator versus Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (The other nominees all have five nominations, and no film since Annie Hall in 1977 has won Best Picture with so few noms.)

So here's the lowdown: Gladiator has already won Best Picture from the British Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, and the Producer's Guild (which isn't as accurate a prognosticator as the Director's Guild Award [DGA] but still stands as a good omen); it's a huge money-maker that audiences (if not all critics) adored; it's a big collaboration from two major studios, Universal and Dreamworks, with a lot of voters working for them (previous two-studio winners include Braveheart and Titanic); it's an old-fashioned, large-scale crowd-pleaser in a resurrected genre; and its win would serve as a rebuke to everyone who said that Hollywood movies in the year 2000 stunk. Plus, it has to win at least a few technical awards among its numerous nods. However, not everyone liked it, those who did might be hard-pressed to call it the best film of the year, and its director, Ridley Scott, hasn't won a single accolade for himself, least of all from the Director's Guild, which typically mirrors the Academy's Best Picture choice. The DGA winner turned out to be Ang Lee, whose Crouching Tiger was named Best Picture from the Los Angeles Film Critics, as well as being named Best Foreign Film from such organizations as the Golden Globes and British Academy Awards, a feat it's sure to repeat at the Oscars. That's undoubtedly the movie's biggest stumbling block - it's all but assured of a win there, and no foreign-language film has ever won Best Picture - and matters are further complicated by the fact that Crouching Tiger was completely shut out of the SAG nominations, and actors represent the Academy's biggest voting bloc. And yet, those who like the film love the film - it might have more passionate supporters than Gladiator - and since Academy rules state that no member is allowed to vote for Best Foreign Film unless they've seen all the nominees in that category, many who are banned from voting for Crouching Tiger in that race might choose instead to give it Best Picture. It's all going to come down to which film dominates the technical awards; look for a pattern there, and the Best Picture victor will most likely reveal itself. (And if either film wins a screenplay Oscar - where Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me will probably beat Gladiator's writers and Crouching Tiger's scribes will be bested by Stephen Gaghan for Traffic - count on that film nabbing the top prize.) For the moment, I'm going with Gladiator, but ask me again two hours into the telecast.

Best Director: Ang Lee for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This is normally the easiest category to predict, since the most accurate barometer for Oscar wins has traditionally been the Director's Guild Award; in its 52-year history, the victor has gone on to win the Best Director Oscar all but four times. That bodes incredibly well for this year's DGA recipient, Lee, who can only be aided by his film's astonishing critical reception, the big bucks it's making at the box office, and his eclectic, very impressive résumé, which includes The Wedding Banquet; Eat, Drink, Man, Woman; Sense & Sensibility; and The Ice Storm. He also received both the Golden Globe and the British Academy Award for his work on Crouching Tiger; even the fact that the movie is subtitled, and looks to be a shoo-in for Best Foreign Film, shouldn't hurt him. But is he invincible? I don't think so. I think there's the very real chance of an upset by Gladiator's Ridley Scott. Even though Gladiator has been winning lots of big awards in the past couple of months, its director hasn't, and not even in his native England. However, if Gladiator is indeed headed for numerous technical wins throughout the night, and if, as expected, Crouching Tiger gets Foreign Film (the Oscar for which goes to the film's director), voters might decide to spread the wealth by giving this to Scott. He's also the only director on the list with a previous nomination in this category (for 1991's Thelma & Louise) and is coming off the huge box office and the at-least-it's-better-than-the-book reception for Hannibal, so he can't be discounted. Despite winning just about every critics' award in the book, Steven Soderbergh made the perilous mistake of making two excellent films in one calendar year (if only every A-list director made such mistakes!), so he'll have to be content with his history-making dual nominations for Traffic and Erin Brockovich (the first time that situation has arisen in 62 years), and Billy Elliot's Stephen Daldry is probably grateful to be here at all. I'm sticking with Ang Lee, but it's also the first time in over a decade that I'm hedging my bet in this category.

Best Actor: Tom Hanks for Cast Away. What, him again? Yup, I'm afraid so. For a long time, the smart money seemed to be on Russell Crowe for Gladiator: He received a previous Best Actor nomination (for last year's The Insider) and has at least one other should've-been-nominated performance (in 1997's L.A. Confidential) to his credit; he anchored a hugely scaled blockbuster movie with lots of other nominations; he brought unexpected depth and pathos to what could have been a generic action-stud portrayal; and he's that thing that Hollywood loves best - a rising superstar who also happens to be a terrific actor. So why has he gone unrewarded for Gladiator? (He lost the Golden Globe to Hanks, the British Oscar to Billy Elliott's young Jamie Bell, the SAG award to Traffic's Benicio del Toro - more on that later - and was ignored by almost all of the critics' organizations.) I'd say his bad-boy rep has hurt him - I doubt he'll be getting many votes from Dennis Quaid or his pals - but it didn't seem to affect last year's out-there winner, Angelina Jolie, so my assumption is twofold: 1) Good as he is, his Maximus is still seen as a one-dimensional, Charlton Heston-type role, and 2) Good as he is, he'll eventually be even better. (He's currently filming a role for Ron Howard that, according to Movieline magazine, has him playing "a genius mathematician who mysteriously descended into madness, and just as mysteriously came out of it and won a Nobel Prize." Sounds exactly like Oscar's cup of tea, no?) Crowe still has a good chance for Gladiator, particularly if it picks up a bunch of other awards, but his shoo-in status has long since vanished. Still, what of the rest of Hanks' competition? Well, Javier Bardem won several critics' prizes for Before Night Falls, but people have barely heard of him, and even fewer have actually seen the film; Geoffrey Rush plays it nutty again in Quills, but support for the film never materialized and, like Hanks, he's a victim of the "Him again?" factor; and Pollock's Ed Harris, on his third nomination and first for Best Actor, would look to be the perfect choice for a win (how many great performances does he have to give?) if he hadn't been ignored for this role at the Golden Globes and SAG awards. (No one has ever won an Oscar after being dissed by both organizations.) So, yes, Hanks looks poised to be the first three-time Best Actor in history (after 1993's Philadelphia and 1994's Forrest Gump), and ironically enough, it'll be the first one he really deserves. Take away his Oscar track record and you'll see a performance (which already won the Golden Globe) that simply can't be ignored: a virtual, and often literal, one-man show of fear, panic, madness, fortitude, humor, and strength. And Cast Away has made more than $200 million pretty much on the basis of Hanks' presence alone. In a stronger year for this category, voters might have found a way to award someone else, but barring a Crowe upset, expect another ultra-emotional Tom Hanks acceptance speech.

Best Actress: Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich. You expected someone else? In fairness, here are the other nominees: Joan Allen for The Contender, Juliette Binoche for Chocolat, Ellen Burstyn for Requiem for a Dream, and Laura Linney for You Can Count on Me. But come on: There's no contest. She's won the Globe, the SAG award, the British Academy Award, and the Los Angeles Film Critics' prize. It's the much-loved Erin Brockovich's best chance for an Oscar. She's a mega-star who finally got a role to match her outsize talents. Her acceptance speeches (at the Globes and SAG awards) have been exuberant and delightful. And best of all, she actually deserves to win, giving a smashing performance in a wonderful movie. There's no need to waste any extra space describing either her merits or her chances; among several sure bets of the evening (including Traffic's win for Best Screenplay Adaptation and Bob Dylan's win for the song "Things Have Changed" from Wonder Boys), this is the surest of them all.

Best Supporting Actor: Benicio del Toro for Traffic. Had you asked me a month ago, I would have said that not only would Albert Finney most likely win for his sensational turn in Erin Brockovich, but he stood as a no-contest choice. Here's a much-respected performer on his fifth nomination (his first came 37 years ago for playing the title role in Tom Jones) with no previous win; his Ed Masry was a wholly entertaining and lived-in character performance complete with a foreign accent (I have friends who are astonished to find out that he's British); he was partnered flawlessly with Roberts (it's fair to say that a large part of her greatness came from sharing the screen with this powerful actor); and, you know, he's more than paid his dues. He also recently won the supporting-actor prize at SAG, a fair indication of awards to come. (Last year, Michael Caine won his first accolade for The Cider House Rules at SAG and went on to take home the Oscar.) But here's the rub: Benicio del Toro won at SAG, too, and for Best Actor, no less. Somehow, he was submitted to the guild as a lead actor, and based on the ovation he received upon winning, and the fact that he toppled such contenders as Tom Hanks and Russell Crowe, it was pretty apparent that if he had done the same with the Academy, he might just have won the Best Actor Oscar, too. However, Supporting Actor is the prize he's up for, and his, like Hanks', might just be a performance that's too strong to ignore. He also emerged victorious at the Globes, the British Oscars, and at least seven critics' organizations (there are currently too many to keep track of all of them); as much sentiment as Finney has going for him, and as terrific as Finney's performance is, del Toro's conflicted drug agent in Traffic just might be the best performance of the year in any category. It also won't hurt del Toro that Finney isn't necessarily a darling of the Academy; he has never gone to the ceremony, has no plans to this year, and could probably honestly not give a damn whether he wins. With The Contender's Jeff Bridges, Shadow of the Vampire's Willem Dafoe, and Gladiator's Joaquin Phoenix serving as backup, expect a showdown between del Toro and Finney, with a much wider gap separating them than you might imagine.

Best Supporting Actress: Kate Hudson for Almost Famous. Without question, the weakest lineup of the year, not because the women nominated aren't fine actresses, but because their roles are disconcertingly free of depth. Here's what we have: Judi Dench playing grumpy-old-lady-with-heart-of-gold in Chocolat; Marcia Gay Harden playing tortured-artiste-with-heart-of-gold in Pollock; Kate Hudson playing free-spirited-groupie-with-heart-of-gold in Almost Famous; Frances McDormand playing brittle-worried-mom-with-heart-of-gold in Almost Famous; and Julie Walters playing chain-smoking-dance-instructor-with-heart-of-gold in Billy Elliott. It's also, ironically, the only category in which every performance has already received a major accolade - at SAG (Dench), the Golden Globes (Hudson), the British Oscars (Walters), the Los Angeles Film Critics (McDormand), and the New York Film Critics (Harden). So take your pick. By process of elimination, Dench won the Oscar (for Shakespeare in Love) a mere two years ago and McDormand (for Fargo) a mere four, and Harden's nomination is for a film very few have seen, and it's tough to imagine her winning if co-star Ed Harris doesn't, which he won't. That leaves Walters and Hudson, and as nice as it is having Walters back on the radar (she was last nominated as Best Actress for 1983's Educating Rita), her role might be seen as far too stereotypical; she plays Burgess Meredith to Jamie Bell's Sylvester Stallone. So we're left with Hudson, who is a charming ingénue in a category that historically loves charming ingénues (the past 10 years have featured wins by the likes of Marisa Tomei, Anna Paquin, Mira Sorvino, Juliette Binoche, and Angelina Jolie), the daughter of Goldie Hawn (can't you already see the weeping-Goldie reaction shots in the audience?), a Best Actress nominee at the British Oscars, and a way for voters to acknowledge the mostly ignored Almost Famous. Does it matter that the role doesn't add up to much and that the movie itself was wildly overpraised? Not this year, it doesn't.

And how about those technical awards? Sadly, I'm usually rather off-base in my predictions here (while I thought it was a shoo-in for visual effects, I didn't foresee The Matrix's sweep of wins last year), but I'm guessing that Gladiator will emerge triumphant for Film Editing, Art Direction, Sound, and Original Score, and Crouching Tiger will be awarded for its Costume Design. As for Cinematography, it'll probably go to one of the two, but would it kill the voters to go with either The Patriot's Caleb Deschanel or Roger Deakins of O Brother, Where Art Thou? They're two of the absolute finest in the industry (Deschanel's work includes The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, and The Natural, while Deakins' résumé features The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, and Kundun) who have yet to win an Oscar; it's a very tight contest as to whose work was better this time around, but in the end I'd go with Deakins, because at least his film didn't suck.

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